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A familiar face back on top at Pebble, and some new ones too

by   |   February 10, 2012
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am - Round One

By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer

No it’s not Tiger Woods atop the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am leader board.  But Tiger is certainly prowling at four-under, and could easily have been closer than the five shots back he is now.

Young phenom and two time tour winner Danny Lee and 40-year old upstart Charlie Wi both finished at nine-under par and tied for first.

Lee’s bogey free round was highlighted by five birdies, and two eagles at No. 2 and No. 11 on the Pebble Beach course.  While Wi established a new course record at the Monterey Peninsula course also with a bogey free round, carding a 61 which included one eagle and seven birdies.

But the two were not at the top without company. Three’s company to be exact.

Charging down the stretch with birdies on No. 14, No. 15, and No. 18, two-time defending champion at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Dustin Johnson also joined Lee and Wi for a three way share of the lead at days end.

And if it’s true as Shirley Bassey sings in the movie All About Mary, “I’ve seen it before, and I’ll see it again.  It’s all just a little bit of history repeating,” then the 27 year-old American Johnson might just be entering the hallowed grounds of Pebble Beach record book lore, joining Jack Nicklaus, Johhny Miller, and Phil Mickelson, as the only other three-time winners of this event.

Maybe there’ll also be a Camaron Diaz sighting sometime this weekend. Back in 2011 Tiger recruited Diaz to help him get a new girlfriend. No one really knows how that turned out however, or at least no one wants to talk about it. OK, so we probably won’t see Diaz this weekend, at least not anywhere near Tiger.

History is on Johnson’s side if you look at the last two times he won here in 2009 and 2010. In both years, he was the first day leader and played the Pebble Beach course.  Yesterday, he was the first round leader, and played the Pebble Beach course.

I know, I know. It’s just the first day. Probably just meaningless coincidence, right?  Well I wouldn’t bet against him.

Johnson was calm and collected, even spectacular at times, showing resiliency and consistency playing the first six holes at six-under, and the last five holes at three-under. And Johnson was in great spirits after the round, tweeting, “Gotta feel good about that round!!! Love it here and my group was a blast!!”

Johnson always likes playing Pebble Beach, and is always comfortable playing here (don’t we all have an aberrational 82 final round meltdown once or twice in our life?)  The course rewards his tremendous length and accuracy, evidenced by him being tied for second in driving accuracy, and averaging just under 300 yards per drive Thursday.

On top of that Johnson is putting absolutely lights out.  In addition to hitting 13 of 14 fairways, and 14 of 18 greens, he took just 24 putts Thursday (ranking him second in the field).  And some of those putts were legitimate dead eye center rolls.  The only thing that could have made Johnson’s putts better (or worse depending who you ask) would have been Bill Murray’s Cinderella Man screaming “It’s in the hole!”

On No. 6 Johnson held the line on a tricky 30-foot eagle, on No. 15 he snuck in a very slippery putt to maintain his momentum on the backside. And on No. 18 he came inside of one-inch to making a putt from a semi-buried lie in the fringe off the green that would have been his third eagle of the round, but settled for a tap in birdie to close his scoring.

Johnson will be there in contention on Sunday. But you know what?  So will Tiger Woods.

The big story remains, and will remain well beyond this tournament, Tiger Woods.  For better or worse, Tiger has become the most over-analyzed, over-scrutinized, over-examined athlete not just on the PGA Tour, but in any professional sport.

Golf writers from every corner of every office down every hallway continue to talk and whisper about Tiger’s fading mystique, or the mysterious process he and coach Sean Foley often refer to, or about Tiger’s self assurance and confidence (or lack there of) Ad Nauseum.

In doing so however, they’re missing out on some pretty good golf.

On Thursday Tiger hit 12 of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens, and had 29 total putts. A dominating performance? Of course not. One to keep you in contention to win on Sunday? Absolutely.

Tiger is going to have to win differently from this moment on.  And a win at Pebble would do more to teach him how he must win as he goes forward, than it will answer those anachronistic questions about the old Tiger aura, or the old Tiger dominance.  Those questions are no longer relevant. There is no Tiger aura, no Tiger dominance. And there will never be a return to  the way it was.

Tiger is no longer untouchable, unflawed. Chinks in his amour have been exposed.

But he still has more skill than any golfer on tour, any given tournament. He still has a mental toughness that will pull him through hard times, though now he will need to pull through by accepting these hard times as defeats where previously he rose above them and turned into victories.

The Tiger we see now is the Tiger we’re going to see for the next ten years. One who shows glimpses of greatness, like his approach on No. 10, and No. 11 to start his round.

But also one who will look out of place, and confused, and make very poor shots that he will not be able to recover from. Like his approach shot into No. 4 where he took an incredible six practice swings, and yet another using just his arm, before sailing the green into a natural dune, and limping out with a bogey five.

Tiger will win again, and win often. But he won’t resemble the Tiger who dominated every Sunday, or whose aura was so mysterious and intimidating that it gave him an absolute and complete advantage even before he stuck his tee in the ground on Sunday afternoon.

Those days are gone. Long gone. But that’s OK. And I think Tiger is beginning to get it.  After the round on Thursday Tiger said, “I wasn’t very good with my irons today.  I left a few shots out there that’s for sure.  And the rest of the guys are going pretty low, tearing this place apart.”

This was no admission of defeat by any stretch. Rather, it was a humble, balanced Tiger maybe for one of the first times in recent memory, being true to himself, being real about what he can and can’t do, and thinking about ways to do other things that will still let him win tournaments.

Perhaps, even as early as this week at Pebble.  And call me a dreamer, but I’m anticipating a Tiger Woods-Duston Johnson pairing on Sunday, the likes of which will be a showdown we have not seen in a long, long time. And ironically, will probably be analyzed, examined, and scrutinized for time and memorial.

And in some respects, when Tiger begins to win again, and he will, these wins might be the most magical of his career. Because he won’t be expected, or able to dominate like he once did.  His aura won’t return like it once was. Any given tournament, he may show glimpses of his old self, just not as often, not as regularly, not for four rounds. But he’ll find a new way to win. And he’ll still be Tiger. And that should be enough more times than not to still be the most talented player in the field. He’ll just be a different Tiger.

In other notable tournament news, Ken Duke, who needed a late season victory last year just to ensure he’d be on the PGA Tour this year, recorded six birdies and an eagle en route to setting the Pebble Beach course record on the back nine, shooting a 28, 8-under par.

Nick Watney remains in the hunt with a seven-under, three off the lead, after making small adjustments to his grip at the advice of his coach, Butch Harmon.  Watney moved to a weaker grip to prevent blocking shots which has been a problem for him this year.

Round 2 coverage resumes tomorrow, Friday at 12:00 p.m. PST 5:30 p.m. PST on the Golf Channel.

Click here for more discussion in the forums.

About

Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions.

Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off.

When Pete's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas


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